Figuring out how to feed humans in space is a major part of a major effort to demonstrate the viability of long-term human habitation in extraterrestrial environments. On May 12, 2022, a group of scientists announced that they successfully grow plants using lunar soil collected during missions to the month of Apollo. But this is not the first time scientists have tried to grow plants in soils that do not normally support life.


I a historian of Antarctic science. How to grow plants and food in the extreme southern parts of the Earth has been an active area of ​​research for over 120 years. These efforts have helped to gain a deeper understanding of agriculture’s many challenges extreme conditions and eventually led to limited but successful plant cultivation in Antarctica. And especially after the 1960s, scientists began to explicitly view this study as a stepping stone to human habitation in space.

Growing plants in Antarctica

The first efforts to grow plants in Antarctica were focused primarily on nutrition researchers.

In 1902, British physician and botanist Reginald Koetlitz was the first person to grow food in Antarctic soils. He collected some soil in McMurda Bay and used it to grow mustard and watercress in boxes under the mirror aboard the expedition ship. The harvest immediately became useful for the expedition. Ketlitz produced enough to during the outbreak of scurvy the whole crew ate greens to help prevent their symptoms. This early experiment demonstrated that Antarctic soil can be productive and also pointed to the nutritional benefits of fresh food during polar expeditions.

Early attempts to grow plants directly in Antarctic landscapes have been less successful. In 1904, Scottish botanist Robert Rudmas-Brown sent seeds from 22 cold-resistant Arctic plants to the small frosty island of Laurie to see if they would grow. All the seeds did not germinate, which Rudmose-Brown attributed to both environmental conditions and the absence of a biologist to help start their growth.

There have been many more attempts to introduce intangible plants into the Antarctic landscape, but in general they did not live long. While the soil itself could support some plant life, the harsh environment was not conducive to growing plants.

Modern techniques and emotional benefits

By the 1940s, many countries had begun to set up long-term research stations in Antarctica. Because it was impossible to grow plants on the street, some people live at these stations undertook the construction of greenhouses to provide both food and emotional well-being. But they soon realized that Antarctic soil was too low for most crops except mustard and watercressand this usually loses its fertility in a year or two. Beginning in the 1960s, people began to switch to the soilless method of hydroponics, a system in which you grow plants whose roots are immersed in chemically enhanced water under a combination of artificial and natural light.

Using hydroponic methods in greenhouses, plant production facilities did not use the Antarctic environment at all for growing crops. Instead, people created artificial conditions.

Until 2015 there were at least 43 different sites in Antarctica where researchers grew plants at one time or another. Although these objects were useful for scientific experiments, many Antarctic people appreciated the opportunity to eat fresh vegetables winter and considered these objects immense benefits for them psychological well-being. According to one researcher, they are “warm, bright and full of green life –an environment that is lacking during the Antarctic winter».

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The International Space Station is home to a small vegetable garden that provides small amounts of food for the crew. Credit: NASA

Antarctica as an analogue of space

As the constant occupation of Antarctica by humans increased until the mid-20th century, humanity also began to push into space – and in particular the moon. Beginning in the 1960s, scientists working in organizations such as NASA began to think about it hostileextreme and alien Antarctica as convenient analogue to explore space where nations could tests of space technology and protocols, including crop production. This interest lasted until the end of the 20th century, but only in the 2000s did space become the main target of some Antarctic agricultural research.

In 2004, the National Science Foundation and the Center for Agricultural Controlled Environment of the University of Arizona collaborated to establish the South Pole Food Growth Chamber. The project was designed to test the idea of ​​agriculture with a controlled environment – a means of maximizing plant growth while minimizing resource use. According to its architects, the facility greatly mimicked the conditions of the lunar base and provided “an analogue on Earth for some of the problems that arise when food production is transferred to space housing. ”This facility continues to provide the South Pole station with additional power.

Since the construction of the South Pole Food Growth Chamber, the University of Arizona has partnered with NASA to create a similar Prototype of the lunar greenhouse.

Growing plants in space

When by the end of the 20th century people began to spend more time in space, astronauts began to use the lessons of the century of plant cultivation in Antarctica.

In 2014, NASA astronauts installed a vegetable production system aboard the International Space Station to study plant growth in microgravity. The following year they harvested a small crop of lettuce, which they then ate balsamic vinegar. Just as Antarctic scientists have argued for years, NASA has argued that the nutritional and psychological value of fresh food is “a solution to the problem the problem of long missions into outer space».

Antarctic research plays an important role for space to this day. In 2018, Germany launched a project in Antarctica called EDEN ISS, which focuses on this plant growing technologies and their application in space in a semi-closed system. Plants grow in the air when Mr. sprays chemically fortified water on their roots. In the first year EDEN ISS was able to produce enough fresh vegetables one third of the ration for a crew of six.

As in the history of Antarctica, the question of how to grow plants is central to any discussion of possible human settlements on the moon or Mars. People eventually abandoned efforts to cultivate harsh Antarctic landscapes for food production and turned to artificial technology and the environment. But after more than a century of practice and the use of the most modern methods, food grown in Antarctica has not been able to support many people for long. Before sending people to the moon or Mars, it would be wise to first prove that the settlement can survive on its own among the frozen southern plains of the Earth.


The only flowering plants in Antarctica are growing faster, probably due to warmer temperatures


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